Pence meets Erdogan to urge halt to Turkey's Syria offensive

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Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met at the Presidential Palace for talks on the Kurds and Syria on Thursday. (AP)
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The appeal for a civilian exit from Ras Al-Ain comes after Turkey's Syrian proxies hit a health facility in the town. (File/AFP)
Updated 17 October 2019

Pence meets Erdogan to urge halt to Turkey's Syria offensive

  • Kurdish-led authority called for a corridor 'to evacuate dead and wounded civilians'
  • Turkish assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200,000 civilians taking flight

ANKARA: US Vice President Mike Pence met President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey on Thursday on a mission to persuade him to halt an offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, but Turkish officials said the action would continue regardless.
The assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Daesh fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for President Donald Trump.
Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish-led fighters, Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Daesh’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Ankara launched its offensive on Oct. 9.
Trump defended his move on Wednesday as “strategically brilliant.” He said he thought Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have a successful meeting, but warned of sanctions and tariffs that “will be devastating to Turkey’s economy” otherwise.
The White House released a letter from Trump to Erdogan from Oct. 9 that said: “Don’t be a tough guy” and “Don’t be a fool!” Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk said Turkey had rejected Trump’s appeal to reach a deal to avoid conflict and the letter was “thrown in the trash.”
A Turkish official told Reuters: “The letter Trump sent did not have the impact he expected in Turkey because it had nothing to take seriously.
“What is clear is that Turkey does not want a terrorist organization on its border and the operation will not stop because of the reaction that has been coming.”
Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not speak to reporters before the start of the meeting with Erdogan, but the official said they were likely to convey the same US demands, adding: “However, negotiating with a terrorist organization or turning back from the ongoing operation are not on the agenda.”
On Monday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC that the United States was prepared to levy additional sanctions on if necessary “to keep Turkey in line.”
A top aide to Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, said Turkey’s foreign ministry was preparing to retaliate for the sanctions by its NATO ally.
Erdogan has dismissed the sanctions and rejected a global chorus of calls to halt the offensive, which Turkey says will create a “safe zone” extending 20 miles (32 km) into northeast Syria to ensure the return of millions of Syrian refugees and clear the area of Kurdish militia Ankara views as terrorists.
Turkey will end its operation when Kurdish forces withdraw from the “safe zone” and “no power” can deter the operation until it reaches its goals, the Turkish leader said.
Trump has defended his move to withdraw troops from Syria as part of a wider effort to bring US soldiers home from “endless wars,” despite criticism by members of his own Republican Party.
Turkey’s operation has allowed Syrian President Bashar Assad to send his Russian-backed forces to an area that had been beyond his control for years in the more than eight-year-old Syrian war.
It also prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurdish YPG is the main component, to strike a deal with Damascus for its help in countering Turkish forces.
Russia has promised Turkey that the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia targeted by the offensive will not be in the Syrian territories across the border, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the BBC on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said Syria should get control over its border with Turkey as part of any settlement of the conflict in the region.
Assad vowed that Syria would respond to the Turkish offensive on any part of its territory with “all legitimate means” available, Syrian state media said on Thursday.
Ankara views the US-backed YPG as a terrorist organization because of its link to Kurdish militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey, and had been infuriated by Washington’s support.
A Reuters cameraman along the Turkish border with Syria said clashes continued around the border town of Ras al Ain on Thursday and that Turkish warplanes were flying overhead after a lull in fighting overnight.
Ankara had previously said it has taken control of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, two key towns along the frontier.
The region’s Kurdish-led authority called for a corridor “to evacuate dead and wounded civilians” from Ras Al-Ain. It said people were trapped in the town, urging foreign powers including the US-led coalition and Russia, to intervene to get them out.
Syrian troops accompanied by Russian forces have meanwhile entered Kobani, a strategic border city and potential flashpoint for a wider conflict, said the British-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV reported that Russian-backed Syrian forces had also set up outposts in Raqqa, the one-time capital of Daesh’s caliphate, which the Kurds captured in 2017 at the peak of their campaign with US support.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said from the Tabqa military air base near Raqqa that Syrian government troops had advanced in that area.
“We entered the Tabqa military airport easily, there was no difficulty,” an army officer told the channel from the base, where Daesh fighters executed scores of Syrian troops and circulated a video of their corpses in 2014.
Soldiers entered Tabqa and nearby villages on Monday, state media said, a deployment that restored the state’s foothold in that part of Syria for the first time in years.
With US air power and special forces, the SDF had battled for weeks in 2017 to take Tabqa and a nearby hydroelectric dam — the country’s largest dam — from Daesh.
The Kurdish-led administration in the region said the Turkish offensive had killed 218 civilians, including 18 children since it started a week ago. The fighting has also wounded more than 650 people, it said.
Turkish authorities say 20 people have been killed in Turkey by bombardment from Syria, including eight people who were killed in a mortar attack on the town of Nusaybin by YPG militants on Friday, according to the local governor’s office.
In Geneva, humanitarian agencies said they were struggling to meet the needs of up to 200,000 civilians who had fled the fighting and reported water shortages in the Syrian city of Hasaka.
The operation has also created a land-rush between Turkey and Russia — now the undisputed foreign powers in the area — to partition Kurdish areas that were formerly under US protection.
Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has called the offensive “unacceptable” and said it must be limited in time and scale.

Related


US troops at Syria base say they’ll keep pressure on Daesh

Updated 12 November 2019

US troops at Syria base say they’ll keep pressure on Daesh

A BASE IN EASTERN SYRIA: At a base in eastern Syria, a senior US coalition commander said Monday that American troops who remain in Syria are redeploying to bases, including in some new locations, and working with the Kurdish-led forces to keep up the pressure on the Daesh militants and prevent the extremists from resurging or breaking out of prisons.
The commander, Air Force Maj. Gen. Eric T. Hill, said even though Bradley armored vehicles have arrived in eastern Syria, the mission’s focus has not changed. He said the “force mix,” including the mechanized armored vehicles deployed in Syria for the first time since the war against Daesh, has an array of capabilities to deny Daesh the chance to regroup.
“The mission still continues. And Daesh is trying to resurge wherever they can,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group. He said the forces have captured 700 IS fighters since its last territorial holding fell in March. “We’ve destroyed many and war remnants and we continue to do so as we find them.”
Speaking at a remote base in Syria where the Bradleys arrived last week, he said “our primary way that we do that” is through working with the US partners, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
The deployment of the mechanized force comes after US troops pulled out from northeastern Syria, making way for a Turkish offensive against Kurdish fighters that began last month. Only several miles away from the base, fighting between Turkish-allied fighters and the SDF was ongoing, despite a cease-fire that has so far curbed the Turkish invasion but didn’t end the violence.
Smoke billowed in the distance, visible from across a major highway that has become a de-facto frontier between Turkish-held areas and areas where US troops are going to operate. An SDF official on the scene said Turkish shelling was continuing.
Further north, three car bombs went off Monday in the town of Qamishli, killing at least six people while a priest was shot dead. Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack that killed the Armenian Catholic priest and his father as they drove from Qamishli to the city of Hassakeh, in a sign that the extremists still have reach.
The US withdrawal from northern Syria was widely criticized, even by allies of President Donald Trump. The Kurdish-led force, deserted by Washington in the face of the threat of a military operation by NATO ally, leaned on the Syrian government and Russia for help. The cease-fire reached in late October left Turkey in control of a stretch of land along the border that is roughly 120 kilometers (70 miles) wide and 30 kilometers (20 miles) deep. But fighting south of that zone continued. Kurdish officials say Turkey is seeking to expand its area of control.
Hill’s stress on the continued partnership with the Kurdish-led forces comes as US troops sent reinforcements to bases in the oil-rich region of eastern Syria.
Trump approved an expanded military mission which he said was to secure an expanse of oil fields across eastern Syria. The directive raised questions about how the troops will operate, particularly in an area where there are Russian-backed Syrian troops, who may try to take back oil facilities.
The decision was a partial win for those who were against the withdrawal from Syria. Pentagon officials said as many as 800 may stay in Syria, down from about 1,200 and including about 200 in a southern garrison.
Hill said while some troops are going home or withdrawing to Iraq, others are redeploying to Qamishli area, Deir Ezzor and Derik, an area where no US bases were before.
In a day visit to some of the bases where reinforcements were sent, Associated Press journalists spoke to some of the troops, many of them newly arrived. The military required that the names and exact locations of the bases not be identified.
First Lt. Jacob Moore said a group of his Bradley armored vehicles were asked to provide security for a US convoy passing through the fighting area, Tal Tamr, setting up a security blockade to allow the forces to pass.
“We were prepared for the worst,” said Moore, who arrived last week in Syria, “but we got the best. There was no fighting when we got there,” Instead, he said, locals were happy to see the new deployment.
In the crowded terrain, US officials say de-conflicting with Russia and Turkey is essential to avoid any friction.
But the reality created on the ground by US withdrawal and the Turkish invasion has made for a tense and at times, surreal terrain, where Russia, Turkish troops patrol together, while Syrian government forces clash with Turkey-backed allies despite a cease-fire brokered by Moscow, a main ally of Damascus. An earlier cease-fire negotiated between Washington and Ankara ensured that the two NATO allies don’t come into confrontation. But it left the Kurdish forces, which were in control of 30 percent of Syria’s territory, pushed away from the borders and reliant on a new political agreement that would protect a five-year experiment in self-administration.
If the US insists its mission is still fighting Daesh, for the Kurds their priority has now shifted. It is time for the alliance with the US to bear political fruit, said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, who was present at one of the bases.
He said keeping the oil in the hands of his forces was a good card for political negotiations.
“Here in northeast Syria, we are part of the total picture that is dealing with a crisis and requires finding a track for a political resolution,” Bali said. “The presence of the US forces, a military weight, will have a positive role in finding a political way out.”
Pentagon officials have stressed that securing oil facilities was a way to ensure that the Kurdish fighters maintain control of an important source of revenue.
One of the bases visited by journalists Monday was close to oil fields, but there was no way of telling if there was an increase of security around the facilities. While one base was provided with the Bradley vehicles, Apache helicopters had moved in to another, apparently from a base dismantled further north.
US officials say the enhanced presence of Apaches and artillery are a deterrent to any hostile forces in the area.
Adding to the complicated terrain in Syria, Deir Ezzor province is divided between the Kurdish-led forces on one side of the Euphrates River and the Syrian government and their Iranian-backed militias on the other. In February 2018, US forces responded firmly to an attempted advance on Kurdish-held areas by Syrian troops, at the time backed by Russian contractors.
At the base, soldiers said the troop presence also secures other infrastructure, such as water facilities and major highways.
Hill said the continued US presence is also to assist and train Kurdish-led forces, including in securing prisons where over 10,000 Daesh militants are held. The US does not guard the facilities but helps the Kurdish forces do so.
“One of the missions that we will continue to support with the Syrian Democratic Forces is to contain the prisons and make sure that all the prisoners that are under SDF control remain in those prisons and secure,” he said.